Ultra Training

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You’re going to run 50 miles?” Jacob asked in an old-time accent that stretched out vowels and centuries. He was farm-work sturdy with dirt-stained hands.

“That’s the plan,” I replied.

“Martha,” he said to his wife, across the aisle. “This gentleman here is going to run a 50-mile marathon!”

She paused from her embroidery, looked at me from beneath her bonnet, and repeated, “Fifty miles.”

Our train was crawling up Donner Pass on the Eastern Slope of the Sierra. I sat in the observation car with several other people, watching the snow-covered hills pass in between the blackness of long snow tunnels.

Our assemblage was a typical one from my Amtrak experience—made up of retired, heavyset Midwestern couples; a young college student reading his textbook, glancing up at the view every so often; an older bearded man three beers deep into his breakfast. Sitting with an Amish family of five, I soaked up this hodgepodge of Americana.

We all had our reasons for choosing the train over the bus, plane or driving, or as a temporary rejection of the rigors of airplane travel. The Amish allow for it as a permissible form of technology, while my reason was that it was a more acceptable one.

Flying at 37,000 feet entirely too often, I had found the privilege of air travel shifting to a chore: taking off my shoes and laboring through security, missing connections, dealing with delayed flights. Train travel is relaxed, it feels more personal and there are nice Amish people.

I explained to Jacob my idea for this trip: to ride Amtrak’s California Zephyr from my hometown in Colorado to San Francisco for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships, a race that has thwarted me three times. Following the race, I would return to my newly adopted town of Madison, Wisconsin, via a scenic, albeit circuitous, route north on the Coastal Starlight to Portland, Oregon, then east on the Amtrak Empire Builder through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and, finally, into Wisconsin.

I explained to him and Martha how train travel is not all that different from running a long-distance race. “There are trying conditions. Sometimes you fall far behind and, with diligence, are able to make it up.” For running and trains, that meant exercising patience. I compared the “fresh-air smoke breaks,” as the conductor called them, or train stops, to aid stations: Shelby, Malta, Glasgow, Stinson Beach, Tennessee Valley, Winnemucca, Glenwood Springs, Reno and Elko—names that don’t mean much to you until you really need one.

“Once you wrap your head around the distance and time that you’ll be out there,” I explained, “it’s only a matter of persevering.”

Jacob asked if I would let them know how it went. Martha wrote out their Wisconsin address in a shaky script and handed it to me.

In Sacramento, the family gathered their small, antiquated suitcases, wished me great success, and exited for a connecting train south.

A week later I lumbered toward the eastern edge of Montana, a little depressed, on the Empire Builder. Tapping my pen, I looked out the window to see snow nestled in the grass and scrub up and over the hills as far as the eye could see. I thought back on three full seasons of running—spring, summer and fall—and the good fights and beautiful mountaintops.

Dear Jacob,

I stopped and rubbed my calves and shins as though to reassure myself that given the pain, continuing would have been out of the question.

I’m 70 hours into the continuation of this next train epic. I’ll say right off that the race did not go nearly as well as I had hoped it would. We runners have been known to get greedy and try to summon more out of our bodies than we should. At mile 28, after much pain and fatigue, I called it quits.

The thunder of the engine and rumble of 1,000 tons of steel-on-steel flushed pheasants from their grassy roosts. They spread out beyond in splashes of browns and grays.

By the time I return to Wisconsin, I’ll have been sitting still for a total of 90 hours.

I considered the irony of what I was about to say to a man who has spent a pious life devoted to hard, honest labor.

It has taken me until now to realize that it wasn’t more training, more travel or another race I needed; it was this—a cozy seat and a good view.


Rickey had a train set growing up. You probably already knew that, though. This article originally appeared in our June 2016 issue.

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